Fourteen walkers gathered at the beach car park in Inverbervie on a bright and breezy day. I had carried out a recce for this walk in similar weather conditions, possibly even more windy. Storm Corrie hit us in between my recce and the day of the walk, so I had no idea what to expect.
We set off from the car park, our route taking us south along the bed of the old railway line that runs between Montrose and Inverbervie. On our right, just after the start, and on the top of some low cliffs, is the site of the 14th century Hallgreen Castle. It has been added to at various times in its history and evidence has been found of it having once been surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge. In the 16th century it became a mansion house and a more modern mansion has now been added. It is now a three-star castle hotel.
After about a mile we reached the quiet fishing village of Gourdon, which nestles under steep slopes. We passed the buildings that housed Britain’s last working flax-spinning mill, which closed in 1997. The only evidence of the buildings’ purpose is a warning sign on one of the doors, saying ‘DANGER – BEWARE OF FALLING BALES – SHOUT BEFORE ENTERING’. That probably gives it away! The mill began over a century ago and became known as the Selbie Mill; but the final straw for it was the cancellation of a large order by Laura Ashley. The mill employed over 200 workers in its heyday, but just 40 when it closed down. We wound our way past houses and fishing sheds to come to the sturdy harbour, overlooked by the Harbour Bar inn – alas, far too early for a tipple! Once a large seagoing fleet sailed out of this harbour, but now the catch is mainly shellfish. There is a smokehouse and a fish-processing business, complete with shop. The old harbour, the Gutty Harbour, was built in 1820 for just eight boats. A more modern harbour, built between 1958 and 1970, sits alongside the original harbour.
From Gourdon our route picked up the Scottish Coastal path network again, continuing to run parallel with the old Montrose & Bervie Railway. When the Aberdeen Railway opened in 1850, coastal settlements north of Montrose were not linked to it. Local interests promoted a branch line between Montrose and Inverbervie. Opened in 1865, it was absorbed by the North British Railway in 1881. It operated for passengers until 1951 and closed completely in 1966.
For the next half an hour the track was quite exposed to the elements with fields to the right and the rocky shoreline on our left. It was less windy than I was anticipating, so that was a plus. During my recce I’d spotted a rickety, homemade wooden signpost that had been erected by this exposed section, indicating distances to many parts of the world. I was intending a group photo here, but alas, Storm Corrie put paid to that. Wherever that sign ended up remains a mystery – perhaps somewhere in Norway!! Anyway, you can see the sign for yourself in the photos below.
Eventually we reached several houses at the Haughs of Benholm. The original intention was to leave the shoreline here and head inland to Benholm village. However, we reached this point much sooner than anticipated, and everyone was enjoying the bracing air, so we carried on further along the coast to Johnshaven. The pastures stretched away to woodland on our right. Among the trees you can see the turrets of Lathallen School; an independent co-educational day and boarding school; a castle set in magnificent grounds. (Or perhaps it’s a rival to Hogwarts!!) The way eventually became tarmacked as it approached Johnshaven. At the harbour we found a sheltered sunny spot for a lateish elevenses break. The flax industry, sailmaking and fishing have historically been integral parts of Johnshaven’s life and economy. The village has its own quirks too. The ‘Sea Pie’, a beefsteak, potato and onion medley, was born in Johnshaven. In the past this local delicacy would have been lovingly made to feed the crews of the fishing boats that came into the harbour. Johnshaven also plays host to an annual Fish Festival.
From Johnshaven we headed uphill away from the coast to reach the busy Montrose road. After crossing it we continued uphill along a country road signposted to Fordoun and Laurencekirk until we reached a track on the right, narrow but not yet overgrown, which eventually led us to Benholm Village. This historic hamlet was the original settlement for the Benholm and Johnshaven parish in the 17th century. However, the original church on the site, and the mill date back to the 12th century. There were also a school, a smiddy and a manse, all now private homes. The settlement was served by Birnie Road Halt railway station between 1865 and 1951. Evidence of a kirk existing here dates back to 1242; the existing building was built in the Georgian style in 1832. A few of the gravestones in the original churchyard are etched with gruesome-looking skeletons, skulls and crossbones and winged heads! At the time of the walk I was asked why the skull and crossbones featured. At the time I had no definitive answer, but I’ve since discovered the real reason. It has nothing to do with pirates. The skull and crossbones and death’s head were commonly depicted on headstones as ‘Memento Mori’ symbols in the 16th and 17th centuries – a warning to us all that we cannot avoid death no matter what our status is in life.
Milling in the area also dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The mill now standing dates back to the 18th century. It was in partial use right up until 1982, the only surviving traditional water-powered mill in this part of Aberdeenshire. It was restored in 1986 but the visitor centre and café/dwellings closed over health and safety concerns in 2014. Unfortunately the gates were padlocked, possibly because of fallen trees, so we couldn’t get to see the mill. We had lunch in the car park area before retracing our steps to the village. From here we rejoined our route, stopping for a group photo before heading up a farm track that was once the old coach road some 200 years ago. It was a long pull up the hill, known locally as the Lang Rig, but it was easy walking on a good track. Looking back, you could clearly make out the cliffs of Red Head 16 miles (26 km) away to the south. At the crest of Gourdon Hill, the highest point on our walk at 136 metres, are the remains of a long cairn, a ritual and funerary monument dating from the Neolithic period (c. 4000–2000 BC). It was thought to be the burial site of local chieftains. The site has been investigated by archaeologists but no sign of a burial chamber has been found. From the long cairn it was an easy walk back down into Inverbervie and back across the Montrose road at the wonderfully named Sillyflatt farm. This was once an inn on the old coach road. From here we headed back down to the shoreline and the car park.
Walk leader and photos Graham Denyer